April 18, 2009

THE SOUL SICKNESS OF COLLECTIVE APARTNESS:

Forgiveness and Irony: What makes the West strong (Roger Scruton, Winter 2009, City Journal)

[W]hat makes secular government legitimate?

That question is the starting point of Western political philosophy, the consensus among modern thinkers being that sovereignty and law are made legitimate by the consent of those who must obey them. They show this consent in two ways: by a real or implied “social contract,” whereby each person agrees with every other to the principles of government; and by a political process through which each person participates in the making and enacting of the law. The right and duty of participation is what we mean, or ought to mean, by “citizenship,” and the distinction between political and religious communities can be summed up in the view that political communities are composed of citizens and religious communities of subjects—of those who have “submitted.” If we want a simple definition of the West as it is today, the concept of citizenship is a good starting point. That is what millions of migrants are roaming the world in search of: an order that confers security and freedom in exchange for consent.

That is what people want; it does not, however, make them happy. Something is missing from a life based purely on consent and polite accommodation with your neighbors—something of which Muslims retain a powerful image through the words of the Koran. This missing thing goes by many names: sense, meaning, purpose, faith, brotherhood, submission. People need freedom; but they also need the goal for which they can renounce it. That is the thought contained in the word “Islam”: the willing submission, from which there is no return.

It goes without saying that the word’s connotations are different for Arabic speakers and for speakers of Turkish, Malay, or Bengali. Turks, who live under a secular law derived from the legal systems of post-Napoleonic Europe, are seldom disposed to think that, as Muslims, they must live in a state of continual submission to a divine law that governs all of social and political life. The 20 percent of Muslims who are Arabs, however, feel the mesmerizing rhythms of the Koran as an unbrookable current of compulsion and are apt to take “Islam” literally. For them, this particular act of submission may mean renouncing not only freedom but also the very idea of citizenship. It may involve retreating from the open dialogue on which the secular order depends into the “shade of the Koran,” as Sayyid Qutb put it, in a disturbing book that has inspired the Muslim Brotherhood ever since. Citizenship is precisely not a form of brotherhood, of the kind that follows from a shared act of heartfelt submission: it is a relation among strangers, a collective apartness, in which fulfillment and meaning are confined to the private sphere. To have created this form of renewable loneliness is the great achievement of Western civilization, and my way of describing it raises the question of whether it is worth defending and, if so, how.

My answer is yes, it is worth defending, but only if we recognize the truth that the present conflict with Islamism makes vivid to us: citizenship is not enough, and it will endure only if associated with meanings to which the rising generation can attach its hopes and its search for identity. There is no doubt that the secular order and the search for meaning coexisted quite happily when Christianity provided its benign support to both. But (especially in Europe) Christianity has retreated from public life and is now being driven from private life as well. For people of my generation, it seemed, for a while, as though we could rediscover meaning through culture. The artistic, musical, literary, and philosophical traditions of our civilization bore so many traces of a world-transforming significance that it would be enough—we thought—to pass those things on. Each new generation could then inherit by means of them the spiritual resources that it needed. But we reckoned without two all-important facts: first, the second law of thermodynamics, which tells us that without an injection of energy, all order decays; and second, the rise of what I call the “culture of repudiation,” as those appointed to inject that energy have become increasingly fatigued with the task and have eventually jettisoned the cultural baggage under whose weight they staggered.

This culture of repudiation has transmitted itself, through the media and the schools, across the spiritual terrain of Western civilization, leaving behind it a sense of emptiness and defeat, a sense that nothing is left to believe in or endorse, save only the freedom to believe. And a belief in the freedom to believe is neither a belief nor a freedom. It encourages hesitation in the place of conviction and timidity in the place of choice. It is hardly surprising that so many Muslims in our cities today regard the civilization surrounding them as doomed, even if it is a civilization that has granted them something that they may be unable to find where their own religion triumphs, which is a free, tolerant, and secular rule of law. For they were brought up in a world of certainties; around them, they encounter only doubts.

If repudiation of its past and its identity is all that Western civilization can offer, it cannot survive: it will give way to whatever future civilization can offer hope and consolation to the young and fulfill their deep-rooted human need for social membership. Citizenship, as I have described it, does not fulfill that need: and that is why so many Muslims reject it, seeking instead that consoling “brotherhood” (ikhwan) that has so often been the goal of Islamic revivals. But citizenship is an achievement that we cannot forgo if the modern world is to survive: we have built our prosperity on it, our peace and our stability, and—even if it does not provide happiness—it defines us. We cannot renounce it without ceasing to be.

What is needed is not to reject citizenship as the foundation of social order but to provide it with a heart. And in seeking that heart, we should turn away from the apologetic multiculturalism that has had such a ruinous effect on Western self-confidence and return to the gifts that we have received from our Judeo-Christian tradition.


What use to get the form right if you biff the substance?

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 18, 2009 7:15 AM
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